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Finding Bayt Across Borders of Stone

[Cover of House of Stone, by Anthony Shadid.] [Cover of House of Stone, by Anthony Shadid.]

No roads, not a single one, lead to the place where we had gotten ourselves.* 

I “met” Anthony Shadid the only way someone like me, a mere reader, can meet a journalist she admires: I emailed him a fan letter. I sent him my short note through the New York Times website and didn’t expect an answer. The next day, he emailed me a brief but warm thank you.

Two days later, on May 10th, I read Anthony’s article on Rami Makhlouf—Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and the regime’s crony-in-chief. In the interview, Makhlouf claimed, “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.” His confession embarrassed the regime which was forced to distance itself from Makhlouf. Soon after, he resigned from his position as vice chairman of the Cham Holding corporation and stated he was dedicating his life to “charity work.”

Anthony’s interview was a significant blow to the Assad regime. That day he changed in my eyes from a journalist I had admired to a Syrian hero. So I emailed him again. He replied. And the rhythm of our relationship began.

Anthony was the only person I didn’t know in my real life who witnessed my transition to Amal. When I was writing from Aleppo, I sent him the links through my “real” email. I did it without explanation or requests for confidentiality—it never occurred to me that I couldn’t trust him completely. At first, our emails continued the same way: I would send praise for his latest article and attach a link to one of mine. He would respond by thanking me for my kind or sweet words. Then after my fourth journal entry, he sent an email: “Great piece, so nuanced.” I was overjoyed. After my next one about the flag, he emailed: “Your last piece was just gorgeous.” Later, he said he found one of my portraits, “so incredibly moving. Inspiring, in fact,” and told me he was “my biggest fan.” His generous words of encouragement are ones I reread every time I wonder if it’s even worth writing any more in midst of Syria’s endless bloodshed and devastating loss.

Last July, I watched a press conference with Makhlouf, the first since his encounter with Anthony. When asked about the interview, Makhlouf brushed it off as lies and inaccuracies that happened off the record, during a dardasheh, a casual chat, in an attempt to insult Anthony’s impeccable journalistic integrity. Even worse —for me at least— he added, “I welcomed him in my office, treated him graciously, and gave him lunch.” By cheaply mentioning a lunch invitation in public, Makhlouf had violated our core principle to always be generous to our guests, without calculation or malice. I was outraged. I asked Anthony, “If this is what you can do with only dardasheh, what would happen if you had a real conversation? I'm dying to know what you had for lunch, since he brought it up in the press conference! Ayeb.” He answered my questions and ended the email with, “We had fish, by the way. :)” I told him that when he was back in the States I would invite him to dinner to make up for the Makhlouf fish fiasco, not only because it would be an honor to cook for him but also a matter of restoring national pride. He replied, “It's a deal. There's nothing better in this world than Halabi cuisine.”

In the comfort of their living rooms, Americans see pictures of disaster but are routed toward new fronts before sympathies develop or questions become too complicated. . . . Our tendency is to consider the resolution of the battle or the war or the conflict, not to take in the tragedies that outlast even the most final sort of conclusion. We never find out, or think to ask whether the village is rebuilt, or what becomes of the dazed woman who after one strange, endlessly extended moment, is no longer the mother of children.

Anthony Shadid’s reports from the front lines of conflicts sought to reconcile what was often missed in the breathless media coverage of “breaking stories” in the Middle East. He was always clear, precise, and honest, but he never let objectivity get in the way of compassion. His deep political and historical knowledge layered his articles with the nuanced context necessary to understand the complex realities. His masterful writing rendered them beautiful and poetic. Anthony’s pieces on Syria especially reflected his deep compassion and respect for the people. When he visited Homs and Hama undercover last summer, he wrote delightful pieces like the one dedicated to slain singer Ibrahim Qashoush whose song, “Come on Bashar, Leave,” became the anthem of the revolution. He also wrote insightful, moving ones like Sons of No One, which described the everyday lives of the revolution’s activists in their safe houses from the Lebanese border to Homs. His stories were the ones we waited for, the ones we listened to, even when he said things we didn’t want to hear, like finding evidence of sectarian violence or hinting at the growing possibility of civil war. His voice had the heavy weight of truth which can only be gained by trust. Readers understood Syria was more than just a story to him. We knew he was thinking about the dead sons of Syria and the women who were no longer mothers.

Months later, on New Year’s Day, our dinner deal was closer to becoming a reality, Anthony emailed he would be on a book tour and would visit me in March. I was excited about both the visit and the book. Within a few days, I downloaded a review copy on my Kindle and promised him I would write a review.

In these broken-down rooms one can hear the voices of ghosts and the regrets of those who still recognize them. 

A favorite author once wrote, “A good book tells you something about its writer. A great book tells you something about its reader.” Anthony Shadid was a gifted journalist with a unique ability to tell stories of the world that reflected not only the humanity of his subjects but also reflected a truth about ourselves. His memoir is no different. This time though, it was between the lines of his subjectivity not objectivity, that we sense his empathy and compassion for the Middle East and its people. Through his personal search for belonging, he poses universal questions about identity: What does it take to honor your family’s memory? To discover your roots? To find home? 

House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East, is a story of crossings, back and forth in time between the places that make bayt, home. Anthony retraces the history of modern Lebanon through his family’s legacy that begins in Jedeidet Marjayoun, a village in southern Lebanon, once the countryside’s “cosmopolitan gateway,” now a village with a dwindling population of eight hundred, sitting on the edge of harsh and often violent borders. The book travels though more than a hundred years of history, from the crumble of the Ottoman Empire to the electrifying Egyptian revolution in Tahrir Square; and over thousand of miles, from the remapping of what would become the modern Middle East to retracing his grandparents’ migration as they settled a world away in the still-frontier land of Oklahoma.

Anthony returned east, in opposite migration of his grandparents, to Marjayoun to rebuild his great-grandfather’s home, once a source of familial pride, now falling apart and ailing from years of squatters’ abuse and a gaping hole in the wall of the second floor courtesy of an Israeli rocket. The detailed history of Lebanon and the difficult and often dangerous journeys of the Shadids and Samaras to America, are a powerful and rich backdrop to the book. Anthony’s developing relationships with the people of Marjayoun is the heart of it: his friends, hysterically funny Shibil, typically suave and witty Kareem, and wise Hikmet; the construction workers, Abu Jean, the 73-year-old head of the warshe, construction site, who, by the end of the year, treated Anthony like a son, and stone mason George, who always referred to himself in the third person; and the elders of the village, especially Dr. Khairalla, whom Anthony endearingly looked up to with utmost respect. Over the course of the year, Anthony learned how to negotiate and bargain. He learned, the hard way, when someone told him something would be done bukra, tomorrow, that tomorrow was almost always a metaphorical one.

He tended to every detail of the house, rebuilding while listening to the whispers of his great-grandparents, Isber Samara and his wife, Bahija Abla. Isber was a proud Leventine man, who had made his fortune traveling freely across land which would soon be marked by borders that would isolate Marjayoun. He was a father who had chosen to say goodbye forever to his children, sending them across the world, one by one, when life in Marjayoun was no longer capable of fulfilling his dreams. His wife Bahija, was a quiet, devout woman who lived by her rituals, making coffee every morning, polishing her floors, and embroidering pillows and dresses for the daughters she would release like letters of hope, sealed with her prayers for a better life in a world she would never know. 

Anthony painted a vivid portrait of Marjayoun, the vendors’ cries, the scents of food and trees, the habits of guests, and the gossip of neighbors. He explained Arabic terms that are almost impossible to translate, like the cunning term used for oneupmanship, shatara. Hilarious, crude Lebanese curses meet poetic, spiritual prayers. All is sacred in the realm of Anthony’s acute observation. He tasted the paper-thin bread and cured olives he harvested from Bahija’s two cherished trees. He tried to understand the pain and sorrow of fatherhood by imagining the pain and sorrow of Isber.

The tile was as beautiful as it was simple, hence its revolutionary aesthetic. Rendered by hand, no two tiles could be exactly alike. . . . each has its own character and each told a story. Or conveyed a mood or ambiance. Most meaningfully, they crossed borders that for a time, were still crossable.

One of the most striking elements in the memoir is Anthony’s attachment to the house’s original materials. The architectural elements themselves become characters in his imagination of the past: the delicate iron darabzin, balcony railings; the triple arches with their wooden tracery; the pale stone walls; and above all, Bahija’s tiled floors. The tiles, or cemento, in Anthony’s imagination represented much more than tile, they represented the history, craft, and tradition of artisans both European and Arab. They represented the Levant.

The tiles reflected, literally and figuratively, “I imagined Bahija polishing the tile and marble on her knees until it reflected her eyes, perhaps sad, perhaps concerned, as they considered the fate of the land now called Lebanon.” In his careful, perhaps obsessive, mission to restore the floors, he collected three batches of cemento from Beirut. Some, he bought from Maalouf and Abu Ali who sold remnants saved from the demolitions of old Beiruti homes, others from the memorably elegant, Mr. Chaya, whose perfect reproductions of the antique designs seduced Anthony beyond his newly acquired bargaining skills. In all, he collected two thousand tiles. He lined them in the garden. He numbered and photographed them, captioning each picture with a sharpie. He measured and remeasured rooms. He listed, categorized, scaled, and diagrammed them. He sketched and created maps of tiles in the rooms. He imagined them unfurled like Persian carpets, their veins and colors changing with the light, becoming more elegant with age. As he designed the floors, tile by tile, he physically righted what had been wronged, “it felt as though I was lifting history and putting it back in its place.” 

Like my grandmother, I understood the questions of identity, how being torn in two often leaves something less than one. 

As I read House of Stone, I imagined what I would cook for Anthony when he came. I was nervous weeks in advance. I knew each dish had to tell a story and planned to delve deep into my grandmother’s recipes for dishes layered with the flavors of Aleppo, merging our Arab, Turkish, and Armenian heritages. My ambitious table would be the culinary translation of the Levant. One that honored who we were and where we came from. A table that remembered.

Clicking through the book and slowing reaching the end, I had an idea. Though it probably wasn’t the most professional inclination if I wanted to produce an “objective” review later, but I didn’t care. I decided to continue our tradition, I would email him the moment I finished reading, my unedited stream of thoughts about his book, like my emails about his articles. So I did:

Dear Anthony, 

I just finished now. This is a pure, emotional response rather than a polished one, so I apologize in advance. 

I cried and laughed throughout the book. But at the end, I cried starting with "Sometimes it is easier to imagine the past than to remember it." all the way to the last page. Everything, the marble, the tile (I think I underlined that whole chapter), the warshe characters, Dr. Khairalla, Shibil & Kareem, the food, the plants, the trees, the town, the proverbs, the history, all of it, was extraordinary. [The way] you stitched the journey of your family with the story of Lebanon was so powerful. The baptism chapter was beyond. The most moving part was when Raeefa saw Bahija Abla (I'm crying again now) after 40 years. And then there is the stone... 

1000 mabruk! You must be so proud. You created something worthy of Isber's memory and his beautiful house. Making a house into a home is never easy, but you managed to do it, in more than one way.  

I have much more to say and a million questions to ask, but will save for the review. One last thing, I was reading every afternoon for the past few days, and although I never drink Arabic coffee alone, I made a rakweh every day to accompany the journey into Marjayoun. I stirred with one hand and held my Kindle in the other and felt closer to Bahija Abla. Now that I think about it, I guess I wasn't alone after all.  

The next day he replied:

I reread your note three times, and each time, it almost brought me to tears. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your words. They mean so much to me, and I don't say that lightly. I feel like you captured so much of what I was trying to do and that makes me very grateful. 

I look forward to talking about the book in person!

All my best,

Anthony

At the end of the book, I had a lingering sense of missing closure—though he had finished the house, he hadn’t finished the journey. He hadn’t told the story of his parents or his upbringing or his early days as a journalist or his new family. I had planned to ask him about that, but I suspected Anthony had another memoir already in mind. One he probably imagined writing a decade from now, when his children were old enough to read his books on their own, when the small, four-dollar olive tree he had planted bore fruit alongside Bahija’s two trees, when the dust of the Arab Spring had settled. One we will never read. 

The lines are too straight, too precise to embrace the ambiguities of geography and history. They are frontiers without frontiers, ignorant of trajectories shaped by centuries, even millennia. 

Of all the colloquial architectural terms Anthony learned in the warshe during the year of rebuilding Isber’s house, bortash caught my attention. I laughed aloud when I read his description of it, “a small slab of stone or marble that serves as a doorstep. I came to know bortash only because I didn’t have one.” It was understandable for him not to know it, coming from American homes with their smooth floors that form continuous, unbroken surfaces between rooms. The bortash (or bartosh as it’s called in Aleppo) is an essential element of Middle Eastern homes. Not just a doorstep, but a thin, material line in relief that separates spaces, interior from exterior, wet from dry, pure from soiled. A bortash is a threshold; a border.  

 Anthony wrote in his final email to me, “I think I'm off to Libya and Tunisia, which feel so far away from Syria. They're letting journalists into Damascus now, though I'm told I'm still on a blacklist. So frustrating.”

Although Anthony suffered a fatal asthma attack, I can’t help but blame the blacklist that had frustrated him. The one which forced him to crawl through a hole in a fence on the Turkish border, and ride the horses he was severely allergic to, instead of entering Syria in a civilized manner. The regime’s blacklist was a menacing boundary shutting Anthony out of the country he was so passionate to cover.

Anthony survived some of the most dangerous, war-torn places in the world: Gaza; Afghanistan; Iraq; Libya. But he didn’t survive our border. He died on Syrian soil, the blood-soaked soil of Idleb and Jabal al-Zawiyeh, the land of the olives that he loved, the sour washna cherries, and Aleppian pistachios. He died on the same ground where Ibrahim Hanano led revolutionaries in fierce battles against the French. He died on a border “rendered with caprice.”

The bortash is the architectural manifestation of a concept Anthony would never understand, or what he refused to understand. Because these hard lines that divided countries and rooms, stood against everything he imagined. These hard lines that covered our map, separated our beliefs and tongues, those trenches dug within our hearts—were what Anthony had spent his life trying to soften and sometimes, erase. They were anti-Levant; they were anti-bayt

Maalim, The Arabic word for expert of master, was perhaps uttered more than any other at the warshe.

There’s an Arabic saying, “Whoever taught me as much as a letter, I will be enslaved to him forever.” That’s how I feel about Anthony. He taught us with his words how to be storytellers of truth and the importance of balancing memories of the past with the power of our imagination to build a better future. I imagine Isber watching the reconstruction of his house by his great-grandson who had returned. Isber, the man of few words, watching Anthony, the man of many words, who carried the stories of our countries to the entire world. The master of words, always true and compassionate—Anthony was the definition of maalim.

My last email to him is dated February 10th. I sent him the links to my Homs pieces. I apologized for bombarding him with four links in one email and explained I was plagued with the opposite of writer’s block. I told him that I would give back my flow of words in a heartbeat if only Assad would stop slaughtering our people. The email bounced back immediately with an automated reply. That had never happened before. Anthony was away until February 16th. I’ll never know if he read that email. And he’ll never know that I would think to myself as I wept on the evening of February 16th, I would give back all my words, past and future, if only he could be here, telling our stories again.

It was bayt and the desire to resurrect what once stood for something.

You can’t rebuild the past in its entirety, there’s always a process of destruction that runs parallel to restoration, like the cemento. You remove decades of dust and replace the broken pieces with carefully chosen new ones. Suddenly the past you sought to reconstruct has become something else, something new, like the dazzling formations of Anthony’s polished floors. You fill in the gaps with your desires and imagination.

Over the last year, my Syria has been remapped with the sites of the revolution, covered with places that had been empty gaps before, places I thought I never belonged to, places I mistakenly thought were so far from bayt. Towns I had never been to and villages I had never heard of, have become a list of places to visit when I return one day. Now I add Jedeidat Marjayoun to that list, the first place that crosses the Syrian border. Marjayoun, to be visited at the same time as Daraa and Jassem. Anthony would have liked that.

And one day I will visit Isber’s house to see the rooms of stone and tile. To experience what Anthony told me in his last email. “I was in Marjayoun yesterday, and couldn't stop staring at the tile, and imagining everything it might represent. Or could, or did -- and on and on.” Even though I longed to, I didn’t ask him for a picture of the tile, because I wanted to write the review purely from the text in an attempt to impress him. In a way, practicing my own shatara. I planned to request pictures after, to ask him my questions after. Because I thought I had so much time.

Tomorrow was only the future and what was to come was always ambiguous here.

Anthony and I corresponded for nine months which were short but far from shallow. We were connected through our love of Syria and its revolution, but it was more than that. We were connected through our obsessive search for identity between the lines of history and memory. In my last email to Anthony that he responded to, I finally mustered the courage to ask his opinion on a matter that was a point of contention with an editor. He gave me sound advice, which I followed to the letter although he will never know that. I was able to get away with what I wanted to say which was exactly what the editor had opposed—either he didn’t notice or pretended not to notice. That was an example of Anthony’s brilliance, but it’s a painful reminder for me of what was yet to come, but now never will. Even our relationship was destined to hover across undefined thresholds: I was more than a fan, but not yet friend; he was more than a reader, but not yet mentor. It was moving towards definition but instead, it died on the border. Instead, it ran out of time. 

It is not a a painful lesson of the revolution, but a lesson of life, one so obvious we often forget it—there is never enough time. There may never be a bukra.

"The Levant is no more, but I had been reminded — by the grace of the triple arches, the dignity and pride of the maalimeen, the music of Dr. Khairulla, and Isber’s sorrow and sacrifice— that behind the politics there were prayers still being said with hope for what draws us together.”

I used to joke with Anthony that when the revolution was over, I would build a statue for him. I told him once, “Whatever the outcome, you are a hero for Syria.” I knew he didn’t approve of this sentiment—although in his well-known Shadidian kindness and modesty, he never said so—because if these uprisings were about anything, they were about breaking the statues. Now that Anthony has become one of our fallen soldiers, it will be my personal mission to build him a monument worthy of his memory in a free Syria. I can already imagine it. Near the border, a monument of stone and tile, surrounded by his beloved olive trees, and inscribed with the whispers of the spirits which live on in Isber’s house, “Remember the past. Remember who you are. Remember me.”

After life is bent, torn, exploded, there are shattered pieces that do not heal for years, if at all. What is left are scars and something else—shame, I suppose, shame for letting it all continue.

Dear Anthony, you left me with a promise impossible to fulfill—I still owe you dinner. You left me to live with the shame of what happened to you in my country, with the shame for letting it all continue. You left us before the end of our Syrian story that you cared about so much—the story that you died for. Your ashes are now embedded in Isber’s and Bahija Abla’s garden, the garden you planted with your hands, in the rich soil of Marjayoun, the Levantine soil of Lebanon and Houran, overlooking Wadi al-Taym, the “diverse but integrated tapestry of Christians, Muslims, and Druze along its valleys, slopes, and foothills.”

I imagine you watching our stories unfold, in a Middle East which will never match your soaring imagination. Watching us in peace, forever in bayt.

It was our destiny to know each other only through our words, so my final words to you are the same ones I used to sign that email: With much respect and admiration, ya maalim.

*All italicized sentences are excerpts from House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East by Anthony Shadid.

Interview with Anthony Shadid in Binnish, February 2012

8 comments for "Finding Bayt Across Borders of Stone"

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Thank you for writing and sharing this heart-filled article with the world. Anthony and I studied Arabic together in Cairo over 20 years ago, and while we had not seen each other for years, I have taken his passing very hard. Every time I read something people have said or written about him, I nod my head saying, yes, that was Anthony. Your piece moved me to tears. It is so full of emotion and is so well written. You captured beautifully so much of who Anthony was, what was important to him, and how he made impacted people. Anthony was a very special person because he cared - his empathy came through in his writing and it is for his empathy that he will be remembered. Thank you again for sharing your memories and feelings. RIP Anthony.

Carrie wrote on March 01, 2012 at 12:22 AM
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Thanks for that. Lovely.

Zak wrote on March 01, 2012 at 04:52 AM
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What a great tribute to Anthony. Beautifully written. I had to fight my tears repeatedly. I can't wait to review " house of stone". Thank you for sharing your heart and soul in your writing.

Sana wrote on March 01, 2012 at 10:28 AM
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Anthony was a noble journalist who would describe events objectively and analyze them with fairness. Amal, you described his inner elevated soul with your so moving words. His almost fatal experience in Lybia did not prevent him from traveling to even more dangerous sites: Homs and Hama and later to other parts in Syria. His passing away is a great loss to journalism and to us Syrians. Our condolonce here is that Anthony will be hosted by the Almighty as a martyr among the Syrian envoys and will be told rest in piece for victory is coming soon.

mumin binnasr wrote on March 01, 2012 at 02:55 PM
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Thanks so much for writing this and posting his last message to the world on video .... he and his work will never be forgotten

Mariam wrote on March 02, 2012 at 01:22 PM
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Thank you, Amal, for your remembrances and for your many writings. I'm very saddened by this loss. I've just started reading House of Stone. As my family were from Blat and Jedeida,I'm grateful that someone with Anthony's gifts tried to tell something of his family's story and the bigger, older stories of which his family's story is a part. His writing reminds me that when an abundance of stories can be told, and listened to, the Jedeida of kindness, generosity, and acceptance that he wished for is never, even in the very worst of times, out of reach. My prayers to Anthony's family and loved ones.

j wrote on March 04, 2012 at 10:39 AM
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Thank you very very much.

khalid medani wrote on March 13, 2012 at 09:15 AM
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I will start like Antony (Great Piece }You fill our hearts with the sound of anger ...fury ...sadness .. and despair ..Antony was every Syrian martyr ...every Arab warrior ...His empathy towards the Arab Spring made us feel so close to him.. The house of Stone is a Symbol of the Middle East ...that is even if restored...it will not be inhabited nor enjoyed by the people who restored it... Is this an emotional article ..Yes it is.. as it should be .. A great man Antony Shadid has lost his life for the freedom of the Syrian People...Let emotion rule....

Am I reading the Syrian Tawakkel Garman .

An American Syrian

MIMI Halabi wrote on March 27, 2012 at 04:16 PM

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